In the dark chill of winter, we seek comfort in the structure of a bygone formality. Our clothing becomes less carefree, and more traditional with warmth. In our centrally heated houses, we light wood fires for the atavistic reassurance brought by the smell of smoke and dance of flame. A nation of soda and coffee drinkers breaks out the cocoa or the teapot. Even in our literature, we are drawn to the traditional structure and dispassionate narration of old-fashioned tales. In our minds, Henry James, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, et al., are suited more for the parlor than the beach.
To the above list, permit me to add Stefan Zweig. Reading Pushkin Press’s Selected Stories, a collection of Zweig’s novellas, I wondered how his work had been left out of my education. A contemporary of Freud, Lawrence, Hemingway, and Chekhov, Zweig has somehow been omitted from the canon of most literature classes. I wonder if some of this omission can be attributed to historical politics. An Austrian writing in the period surrounding WWI, Zweig writes from what is now considered the wrong side of history.
This perspective makes his work all the more interesting. Most of the literature read by Americans from the period impacted by the Great War comes to us from the side of our Allies. We have read volumes on the depletion of human, cultural, and tangible resources in Britain and France. The shell-shocked British or American soldier is synonymous with our cultural memory of that long-ago conflict. We have volumes of literature depicting the outcome of the Russian Revolution. But, how much of a glimpse are we given into the window of the other side, into the lives of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Given that the horrors of WWII arose directly from the socio-economic conditions of the defeated Austria and Germany, it seems that it would behoove us to better understand the lives of those who became residents of the Nazi state.
While generally apolitical, Zweig’s stories poignantly depict the impact of the war upon the lives of average Austrians. In “The Invisible Collection,” the family of a blind art lover sells his priceless collection of engravings piece by piece in order to stave off the devastating devaluation of currency during the time of severe inflation. Zweig does not focus on the political situation; he writes from a time in which everyone had first-hand experience of the economically crippling realities. Instead, his narrator gives us an image not easily forgotten by anyone. “Then, tenderly, delicately (as one handles fragile and precious objects), he picked up the first of the blank sheets of cartridge paper and held it admiringly before my sighted eyes and his blind ones.” Despite the formal tone throughout, we see that Zweig’s narrator is not unmoved. “I shuddered as the unsuspecting enthusiast extolled the blank sheet of paper; my flesh crept when he placed a fingernail on the exact spot where the alleged imprints had been made by long-dead collectors. It was as ghostly as if the disembodied spirits of the men he named had risen from the tomb.”
This sense of a compassionate narrator, carefully controlling the emotion of his narrative with the formality of another time, pervades Zweig’s stories. He gives us tales imbued with deep emotion, but presented with a careful objectivity that renders the emotion more intense and more terrible in its understatement. This presentation, so commonly seen in turn-of-the-twentieth-century literature, is almost absent from modern writing. Even those who have mastered the art of writing skillfully and without hyperbole to the core of the human soul lack the formal detachment of the previous era. So, too, in the modern age, have we lost the ability to present pronouncements on the nature of the human experience without seeming stilted or dogmatic.
Zweig’s insights into the human condition are phrased in skillfully worded, eminently quotable passages that linger on the tongue and in the mind. “Once a man has found himself there is nothing in this world that he can lose. And once he has understood the humanity in himself, he will understand all human beings.” This passage concludes the first of the Selected Stories, “Fantastic Night,” in which a wealthy young man is roused from the numbing ennui of his hedonistic life by a series of misadventures. Contrary to expectation, his epiphany begins not with a near-death experience or act of heroism, but with petty lust and pilfering. Zweig writes of a cultured, well-behaved young man who overcomes the death of his soul only by opening himself to the darkness within. In an era in which we attempt to entertain, educate, meditate, and medicate our demons into oblivion, it is instructive to read the works of a writer who embraces the notion that a complete human existence requires the acceptance of both dark and light, that our desires are as much a part of our being as our deeds:
Since then I hold back from nothing, for I feel the norms and formalities of the society in which I live are meaningless, and I am not ashamed in front of others or myself. Words like honour, crime, vice, have suddenly acquired a cold, metallic note, I cannot speak them without horror. I live by letting myself draw on the power I so magically felt for the first time on that night. I do not ask where it will carry me: perhaps to some new abyss, into what others call vice, or perhaps to somewhere sublime. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. For only he who lives life as a mystery is truly alive.
But never – and I am sure of this – have I loved life more fervently, and now I know that all who are indifferent to any of the shapes and forms it takes, commit a crime (the only crime there is!)
Zweig’s stories are not without romance, but not the prim and chaste romance of the Victorian and Regency periods. Zweig writes frankly of human desire and sensuality without sensationalism. In “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” ‘R,’ a famous novelist, receives a letter in a woman’s hand with the superscription, “To you, who have never known me.” The woman begins with the death of her son, then travels backward to tell the tale of her lifelong love for the novelist and their intermittent, anonymous affair. It emerges that this woman lived her teen years across the hall from ‘R,’ falling deeply in love with him as an impressionable girl. When a chance encounter brings them together as she enters adulthood, ‘R’ does not recognize his former neighbor in the now-attractive young woman. Their three night liaison changes her life, but apparently evades the memory of ‘R’. Each time they meet throughout the years, the moment means everything to the woman, and is immediately forgotten by the man. “You took me in your arms. Again I stayed with you for the whole of one glorious night. But even then you did not recognise me. While I thrilled to your caresses, it was plain to me that your passion knew no difference between a loving mistress and a harlot…”
Zweig’s grasp of passion and sensuality finds voice not only in his depictions of relations between men and women but among humanity as a whole. “…I felt a new desire, to break down that last barrier between me and them, a passionate longing to copulate with this hot, strange press of humanity. With male lust I longed to plunge into the gushing vulva of that hot, giant body; with female lust I was open to every touch, every cry, every allurement, every embrace – and now I knew that love was in me, and a need for love such as I had not felt since my twilight boyhood days.” Zweig appears to comprehend all too well the force that human passion can exert over reason, how one overriding passion can define a moment, and thus a lifetime.